1 Introduction

In today’s world, technology has become an integral component that individuals and businesses rely on to perform their day-to-day activities and transactions (Ullah et al., 2019). Currently, many industries are catching up fast with advanced technology to give better products and services to their customers and to attain their competitive edge in the market (Ullah et al., 2019). Chief among all technological developments is the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the matrix, which as scholars contend, has been most consequential. Evidences of research highlight on the fact that the adoption and application of AI has ubiquitously encroached upon human being’s each and every activity from normal living to work, social to economic activities, small scale to large scale manufacturing activities and the list is endless (Purdy and Daugherty, 2016; West and Allen, 2018; Vinuesa et al., 2020).

Purdy and Daugherty (2016) noted that the plateauing levels of economic growth and efficiency have provided impetus for the introduction of the new factor in contemporary production thanks to innovation and technological exploits of humans – this new factor of production is AI which has come to revolutionalise the way organizations operate and lead to economic transformation. This notion is seconded by West and Allen (2018) who posit that AI’s broad range of tools and functionalities bequeaths people the ability to integrate information and conduct insightful data analysis which promotes objective and transformational decision making. The foregoing is expounded upon by the study from Vinuesa et al. (2020) which focuses on a very much related aspect of the AI phenomena in the global environment. Vinuesa et al. (2020) in an attempt to clarify the revolutionary aspects of AI investigated the capabilities of AI to support the attainment of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030. The researchers acknowledges that AI is the new factor in all operations from manufacturing and production, service to everyday social living and therefore highlight that it is important to critically understand how this phenomenon will be useful in helping the world attain its sustainability goals as envisioned by the framers of the charter. The scholars note that from the 169 indicators of sustainable development enshrined in the UN SDG 2030, AI acts as a facilitator to 134 indicators but may potentially inhibit almost 59 others (Vinuesa et al., 2020).

A key point of necessity for AI application is the smart cities which are grounded on the sharing of information, integration of systems and the use of the information to operationalise these systems (Woetzel et al., 2018). Multiple functionalities in the broad spectrum of AI are integrated in an effort to support the functionality of smart cities and Woetzel et al. (2018) mention that the bottomline of all these functionalities and the success of smart cities is the collection and use of data. A preliminary definition of AI accentuates the above submitting that AI generally refers to the integration of systems and machines allowing them to respond to stimuli synonymous with humans, given the human aptitude for rationale, judgment and intent (Davenport et al., 2017; West and Allen 2018). Considering the notion presented by Vinuesa et al. (2020) regarding AI and UN SDGs 2030, the ability to effectively understand the incontestable role of AI to successful smart cities is critical and underlies the goal and premise of the current study.

1.1 Significance of the Study

Vinuesa et al. (2020) note that there is paucity of empirical research evidence on the synergy between AI and smart cities both locally and globally. There is an apparent lack of knowledge among scholars and practitioners alike, on the role of AI in the current socio-economic market dynamics despite its appraised revolutionary characteristics (Davenport et al., 2017). According to Davenport et al. (2017), out of a total of 1500 top business leaders and scholars who participated in the ‘Cognitive Technology Adoption Survey’ administered by Deloitte, only 17% - roughly 235, expressed familiarity when asked about AI’s role in sustainability. Therefore, the current study is significant as it:-

  • Underscores the core goal of development of smart cities globally of sustainability and improved livelihoods (Woetzel et al., 2018);

  • Highlights the supremacy of the UN SDGs as the hallmark of all global and local sustainability initiatives that countries pursue, being a joint agreement between countries around the world (United Nations 2015);

  • Brings about the appreciation of the role of AI as the underlying fabric of all smart cities functionalities for systems and processes towards the attainment of sustainability.

In a nutshell therefore, the main research question that the current study seeks to address is – what is the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in promoting sustainability through smart cities in the UAE?

2 Theoretical Underpinning

The hallmark of sustainable development is the UN SDGs that are an agreed set of indicators for sustainability, which countries around the world should adhere to or strive to achieve. While some researchers through polemic analysis have highlighted some contradictions among some of the sustainable development goals thereby highlighting some goals as counterproductive to others (Fonseca et al., 2020; Vinuesa et al., 2020), the SDGs still remain a key roadmap to the achievement of a sustainable environment. The foregoing being the position, the question arises of how the SDGs help in the achievement of sustainability? Or better still, what are the efforts put in place towards the achievement of certain sustainable development goals. Evidence of research from (Woetzel et al., 2018) helps to better answer the foregoing questions by intimating that, the development of smart cities is directly related with the growth of better responsive cities and people as far as environment, economy and society is concerned. The scholars inform that smart cities through the interconnectedness brought about by digital technologies enables the effective communication and sharing of information which in turn supports the management of functions to the extent of being able to regulate negative consumption externalities, prevent crime, reduce disease burden, and increase social well-being.

The above can be further understood by singling out one of the SDGs as per the UN 2015 SDGs framework namely SDG3 and highlighting based on research how smart cities can promote their achievement (UN, 2020). To visualize, Fig. 1 below, depicting the SDGs framework is shared. The selected SDG has been randomly selected based on the closeness of its name to the aspects of the research – socio-economic sustainability, and their singling out does not mean that the others are not related to the smart cities and vice versa. The goal of the research is not to deviate into the relationships of each SDG, rather, to paint a picture of the way smart cities are related to some of the mentioned sustainable development goals.

Fig. 1.
figure 1

Source: UN (2020)

UN SDGs framework.

Taking the third SDG for example and aligning it with evidence of research on the role of smart cities in its attainment, Woetzel et al., (2018) report that in their pilot study of smart city applications in three different cities with varying level of smart city readiness, it was found out that smart city applications resulted in the reduction of fatalities by 10%. Together with the above, the connectivity of smart cities enabled improvement in emergency response by 20–35% and lowered the disease burden by almost 15%. These statistics by Woetzel et al., (2018) find support from other evidence of research which note that smart city functionalities directly affect the health and well-being of city dwellers (Trencher and Karvonen 2017; Cook et al., 2018; Rocha et al., 2019). Moreover, Trencher and Karvonen (2017) for instance mention that the health and well-being agenda is a primer for the attainment of the social component of sustainability and that through increased connectivity through sensors that gather information, health professionals are now able to closely monitor health developments, respond to emergencies and understand trends in age and diseases for the general population.

On another note, Cook et al. (2018), intimate that highlight that through smart city applications that are integrated with the healthcare services, smart cities can be able to effectively promote wider access to healthcare for the populations while at the same time lowering the costs of healthcare. This aligns squarely with the third SDG which aims at promoting healthcare and well-being for all and subject to the evidence shared briefly hereby, it can be confirmed that smart cities through their interconnectedness can enhance better healthcare for city dwellers. Rocha et al. (2019) explain that while smart applications in smart cities can promote healthcare, effective integration and development of infrastructure is required for the appropriate functioning of smart cities for purposes of improved healthcare. The scholars note that most of the competencies of smart cities towards improved healthcare are in their early stages but reflect a promising trend of much accessible, responsive, and proactive healthcare systems in cities supported by well-integrated and interconnected technological systems which is synonymous with artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

2.1 Role of Artificial Intelligence in Smart Cities

Multiple evidence of research has to this point alluded to the involvement of technologies such as ICT and their interconnectedness in the provision of necessary information to smart cities systems to enhance the making of decisions. While this is an agreed datum, the actual role of AI in the development and operations of smart cities remains in paucity as far as empirical evidence of literature is concerned. The paucity notwithstanding, the research has stumbled upon evidence of research that directly considers the role of artificial intelligence in smart cities. In agreement to afore-cited evidences of research, the evidence notes that, smart cities thrive through the integration of multiple technological competencies and continually supporting innovative technologies that in turn support the socio-economic and environmentally friendly development of cities (Vodă and Radu 2018). In underscoring the need for artificial intelligence in smart cities, Vodă and Radu (2018) educate that smart cities are complex systems which rely on a collaboration of functions including innovative capacities of the cities, ICT technologies development, adoption and investment, and the residents’ readiness to effectively utilize these technologies. The scholars essentially indicate that, the numerous numbers of people living in urban centers require the use of revolutionary approaches in the management of the city functions and dynamics to ensure that the living standard of the residents are sustainable and secured. To this extent, artificial intelligence functions as a boost to the technological advancements of ICT through bringing the human logic aspect and enabling the technologies to scale heights of their utility and support better functionality of cities’ processes and systems.

The integration of the urban systems and sub-systems, hardware, software and humans to accentuate the sharing of knowledge between systems can only be achieved through artificial intelligence which include machine learning, natural language programming and logic and problem solving, among others. The need for human intelligence being paramount, Vodă and Radu (2018) cite evidence from Holland (2008) who mentions that human knowledge and ability to understand, adopt, utilize and develop smart and innovative systems is the bedrock of all smart cities. The researchers contend that artificial intelligence is the calibration of human intellect into systems, machines and machinery and to this extent, it is a prerequisite that akin human capital is present first to foster development and remains present to foster the adoption and appreciation of AI in smart cities. Concurrent evidence of research from Impedovo and Pirlo (2020) shares more light into the use of artificial intelligence in smart city systems. Through an analysis of a corpus of more than 20 empirical evidences on the application of artificial intelligence in the management of smart cities, Impedovo and Pirlo (2020) highlight areas such as life quality, health, safety, localization, driving and routing, city systems management, vehicular traffic prediction and social big data analysis as supported fully by artificial intelligence of systems, devices and equipment among others. A case in point that is highlighted by scholars Impedovo and Pirlo (2020) in their research is the social big data analysis for the purposes of healthcare determination of a population. Impedovo and Pirlo (2020) identified one such application executed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia named as Sehaa and which relied in artificial intelligence competencies such as logistic regression, multiple feature extraction and naïve bayes to analyze data from hundreds of thousands of populations in the country from their Twitter bio data. Through an analysis of a little below 19 million tweets, this tool was able to identify common diseases including hypertension, diabetes, coronary diseases and cancer as the primary diseases among the population. When relating the above function of AI in smart cities to earlier cited capabilities of smart cities to promote better health efficiency in line with SDG3, it can be confirmed hereby that AI is the interlocutor between smart cities and sustainability and by extension, the better livelihoods promised under the latter two.

3 Method and Approach

The current research utilized quantitative research approach. According to the evidence of research regarding philosophy and approaches to research, it is noted that certain philosophical inclinations are aligned to particular research method choices (Zikmund et al. 2013; Tsang 2014). For this fact therefore, in the current study, the quantitative approach relied on a 5-point Likert scale survey questionnaire that touched on the three primary constructs of the research – artificial intelligence, smart cities and socio-economic sustainable development goals. The question(s) of the survey were used to measure and derive a weighting of the practitioner’s perception of the role of AI in the UAE smart cities in supporting the attainment of socioeconomic sustainability. A total of 300 practitioners drawn from organizations in the UAE involved directly or indirectly with AI, smart cities development and the attainment of socio-economic sustainable development goals participated in the research. The structured quantitative data was analyzed using SPSS software where the research sought to examine the correlations between the three constructs of the study in order to come forth with weighting for the strength of their relationships. Essentially, structural equation modeling (SEM) was conducted based on a conceptual framework of the three constructs of the study. In the conceptual framework, AI formed the independent variable, socio-economic sustainable development goals formed the dependent variables while the smart cities mediated the relationship thereof.

4 Results

The independent constructs of the study – AI were found to be majorly responsible for impacting the attainment of socio-economic development goals in the UAE when mediated upon by the smart cities at a strong regression coefficient of 0.789. Together with this, one of the other findings of the study that drew a lot of attention and went contrary to expectations was the impact of smart cities on socio-economic sustainable development goals while not affected by AI. This relationship was rejected a few times and recorded instances of negative correlations going contrary to evidence of literature on the impact of smart cities on sustainable development. A point to note however was that, while smart cities did not have a direct effect on socio-economic sustainable development, when impacted by AI, it reflected a very strong relationship. On the other hand, findings from the path analysis drew a strong regression correlation coefficient between AI and socio-economic sustainable development goals at 0.348 without the mediation of smart cities. These two findings can be explained by the fact that smart cities on their own may be suspected of environmental degradation during development as well as having high costs which are far beyond people’s affordability. This way, therefore, they are bound to have a negative correlation with sustainability. On the other hand, when impacted by AI, smart cities develop new efficiency in terms of aspects such energy consumption and overall maintenance which are capitalized to realize better socio-economic sustainability through savings and the mitigation of negative externalities. In the case of the positive relationship between AI and socio-economic development without the mediation of smart cities, the explanation can be taken to imply that, the interconnectivity advantage brought about by AI is impactful to sustainability even without smart cities. An example of this is the case of hospital and healthcare services delivery through artificial intelligence technologies which as seen from literature has the capacity to promote socio-economic sustainable development among other multiple examples that can be drawn.

5 Conclusion

The results from the analysis of the path relationships between AI, smart cities and socio-economic sustainable development goals showed that the relationship between the independent construct of the study were mostly strengthened by the mediating variable of smart cities to realize better attainment of socio-economic sustainable development goals. When considering AI’s relationship with the socio-economic development goals, while the relationship was positive, its regression coefficient was not as strong as when it was mediated upon by the smart cities in the UAE. This is implicative of the fact that the three constructs work effectively together. The current research was therefore successful in highlighting the role of AI in fostering the achievement of socio-economic sustainability in the UAE through the mediation of the UAE smart cities.